Asher Abid Khan apparently was having second thoughts about becoming a martyr for Allah if necessary. Joining the Islamic State in Syria, which had seemed like a good idea at the time was suddenly not as noble an adventure as he and other teenage Muslims had thought. The prospect of sacrificing his life for the Islamic State became increasingly less appetizing the closer it got to reality especially for a 19-year-old who had grown up in a religiously moderate family in Texas.
At least that’s what his defenders contend.
While he sat in the Istanbul airport waiting to take the next step, he phoned his parents in a Houston suburb and told them he had changed his mind and wanted to come home presumably to a “praise Allah chorus” from his gathered relatives. He came home but continued to keep in touch with a friend, a converted Muslim, who had followed through on both their plans to fight with the Islamic State.
Now the FBI says he can’t be trusted to not turn around again despite what his parents and lawyers contend is “the right thing,” which was to abort the whole idea. So months later, despite never giving further indication of leading the life of a radical, he was arrested last May and now faces 30 years in prison.
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His story, as reported in the Washington Post, is not unlike that of any number of Muslim young men and women, who have been considered by the FBI as potential conspirators on behalf of a terrorist organization, despite an indication they no longer believe in the worthiness of the Islamic State and its efforts to build a Caliphate across the Middle East. The bureau’s policy and that of the Obama administration for that matter seems to be that those like Khan can’t be trusted to have permanently abandoned their radical beliefs.
His attorney, and those of others in the same position, argues who better to help de-radicalize hotbeds of naive youngsters drawn to the Islamic State by its recruiters than those who have seen the errors of their ways. They can, the argument goes, penetrated the mosques and preach a different line.
The question, however, is whether the initial exposure to religious radicalism can ever actually be diluted enough to prevent its resurgence at some point .So far, the philosophy in these cases has been once a potential terrorist always a potential terrorist. To consider it differently would be a gamble the government doesn’t want to take despite some indication the courts disagree.
Khan, for instance, was ordered placed under house arrest with an electronic monitor by a federal magistrate much to the consternation of the Justice Department, which has appealed the order and lost so far. Meanwhile his trial is pending.
What should we do under the circumstances given the penchant for violence being generated by the thugs who practice a version of their religion that is not only barbaric and primitive, but seemingly a threat to the security of this nation, as well as much of the Middle East? It is the thorniest of questions which U.S. authorities have in their efforts to head off terrorist attacks.
The slightest indication of sympathy toward the Islamic State, even among the youngest, naturally triggers an immediate visceral reaction from security personnel. It should given the possibilities. One would think the authorities might excuse these wannabe jihadists as just overzealous youngsters vulnerable in their teen years to the romantic appeal of the Islamic state cause. But that is exactly the age when lasting impressions and attitudes are developed. Give him an army of teenagers, a famous Marine general once said, and he could conquer the world.
Hanging over all this is the worrisome prospect of injustice to those who may have more than just sublimated their feelings and genuinely realized there is no religious justification for the beheading of innocents.
According to the Post, Khan last year cautioned his friend in a message to “make sure they (ISIS) are doing everything according to Islam you know. Not killing innocent ppl (people) and all that.” That of course indicates a degree of naivety about the brutality and butchery of a force than can only be regarded as blight on civilization. But it also reveals a wavering of Khan’s attitude.
Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at: : firstname.lastname@example.org .